Non-expert robot programming has the potential to reduce costs and accelerate improvements to manufacturing operations. By allowing non-technical staff the ability to customise robots and cobots (robots that interact with humans), companies could see a dramatic shift in the way they work with robotics.
Robotics technology is already disrupting industries. But the costs of procuring and re-programming robots and cobots can be high. Currently, robot programming is primarily done by specialist engineers, but there are an increasing array of robotics companies offering solutions that can be programmed and manipulated by non-experts. One such example is Franka Emika, which aims to make robots as user-friendly as smartphones.
Better software integration is making it easier and easier to re-program these bots, using drag-and-drop programming. But does the reality live up to the hype?
Our client, a global manufacturer of large equipment and machinery, regularly used robots on its assembly lines. While these robots improved efficiency, non-experts found it time-consuming to re-program the robots to perform new tasks.
The client’s goal was to develop more collaborative manufacturing operations, enabling non-expert workers to interactively re-task robots and cobots through a simplified interface. These technology solutions are emerging, making it challenging to evaluate which existing approaches would be best for their intended use case.
They wanted to identify programming interfaces that allow non-expert floor operators to reprogram robots/cobots in common factory settings. Our research would guide which software product to use and ensure compatibility with the client’s goals and their existing manufacturing robots.
To identify opportunities offered by non-expert robot programming, we assembled a small team bringing together academics at the forefront of state-of-the-art research on human-machine interfaces for robotics and experts from industry. This academic had an extensive background in the use of robotics and automation. While our industrial expert was knowledgeable about commercially available robotic programming systems with simple user interfaces.
Both researchers investigated the newest use cases for collaborative robot-worker environments, along with the latest innovations in programming user interfaces and robotics in collaborative working systems. Based on our team’s research, we determined the top 10 vendors providing collaborative robots with easy-to-use programming user interfaces and benchmarked their solutions based on eight KPIs.
As part of our research, we identified shortcomings with these new products and services, as well as regulatory hurdles. From a regulatory perspective, every robot on an assembly line must be certified for a particular task or function it performs.
The future of next-generation “cobotics”
The result was an analysis of the most promising collaborative programming tools and cobot solutions, including detailed analyses of use cases and vendors. Our client is currently implementing the collaborative software tool we recommended by retrofitting their existing robots. The client is also initiating a collaboration with a vendor to develop a next-generation “cobotics'' solution for their assembly lines.